Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas - A time for Dickens

The Beeb's costume drama serial Little Dorrit has just finished. Bizarrely, the penulitmate episode – in which Mr Merdle the banker and richest man in England commits suicide as it becomes apparent that he's been using new investor's money to pay out to already existing investors – was screened just as we were hearing on the news about Bernard Madoff (surely a Dickensian name for today) who has made off with $50 billion in a similarly styled fraudulent scam.

Historian Tristram Hunt wrote in The Guardian back in October ("Toxic debts, collapsing banks and endemic fraud...ring any bells?") that George Bernard Shaw had claimed Little Dorrit to be a more seditious text than Marx's Das Kapital in its critique of capitalism. See here:

To quote Mr Hunt: " many a modern finance house, Merdle's front was all fraud. Dickens modelled him on the railway speculator-turned-MP-turned-minister John Sadleir, who embezzled and then bankrupted the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank before killing himself. What makes Merdle's crime more heinous is the insouciant connivance of the Circumlocation Office, a poorly disguised Treasury peopled by incompetent officials ready to sign off any amount of City sharp practice."

And so it's Christmas and Dickens is still popping up everywhere...and what has this to do with Willow Pattern?

Dickens wrote about the Willow Pattern in his weekly journal "Household Words" in an essay entitled "A Plated Article". In April 1852 he found himself in Staffordshire and stayed the night in a pub called The Dodo which did not impress him. He is bored and possibly a bit lonely, and has "conceived a mortal hatred" of his lodgings. He has a plate of biscuits and is in the mood to burn the biscuits on the fire and break the plate. But first he looks at the back of the plate and realises it is made by the Copeland pottery that he has visited only the day before. He finds the plate, as he looks at it, "growing into a companion".

"And don't you remember (says the plate)...what we spring from:- heaps of lumps of clay, partially prepared and cleaned in Devonshire and Dorsetshire, whence said clay principally comes – and hills of flint, without which we should want our ringing sound, and should never be musical?..." Dickens tells us how the clay and flint are prepared..."And as to the flint and the clay together, are they not, after all this, mixed in the proportion of five of clay to one of flint, and isn't the compound – known as "slip" – run into oblong troughs, where its superfluous moisture may evaporate; and finally, isn't it slapped and banged and beaten and patted and kneaded and wedged and knocked about like butter, until it becomes a beautiful grey dough, ready for the potter's use?"

And so he goes on, describing in great detail how a plate is made, as though the plate were speaking to him, reminding him of each stage of production he had witnessed at the Copeland factory. Items are thrown or moulded, fired (he is quite enamoured with the drama of the firing process) and ornamented.

"And didn't you see (says the plate) planted upon my own brother that astounding blue willow, with knobbed and gnarled trunk, and foilage of blue ostrich feathers, which gives our family the title of "willow pattern"? And didn't you observe, transferred upon him at the same time, that blue bridge which spans nothing, growing out from the roots of the willow; and the three blue Chinese going over it into a blue temple, which has a fine crop of blue bushes sprouting out of the roof; and a blue boat sailing above them, the mast of which is burglariously sticking itself into the foundations of a blue villa, suspended sky-high, surmounted by a lump of blue rock, sky-higher, and a couple of billing blue birds, sky-highest – together with the rest of that amusing blue landscape, which has, in deference to our revered ancestors of our Cerulean Empire, and in defiance of every known law of perspective, adorned millions of our family ever since the days of platters?..."

Glowing and poetic words coming from the plate itself and not Dickens' own opinion apparently. He describes the transfer process, applied cleverly "by a light fingered damsel", and then takes a sideways swipe at the Willow Pattern: "I had seen all this – and more. I had been shown, at Copeland's, patterns of beautiful design, in faultless perspective, which are causing the ugly old willow to wither out of public favour; and which, being quite as cheap, insinuate good wholesome natural art into the humblest households."

The essay is also reprinted as an appendix in David Richard Quitner's "Willow!" (see booklist, right). Quitner says "Dickens...was blind to all artistic conventions but those he had grown used to in the dogmatic Victorian occidental world he inhabited." He reckons that Dickens was by now becoming quite wealthy and successful and was distainful of Blue Willow-ware's mass appeal and considered it "an object worthy of discard in the tortuous climb from hovel to estate."

Contrary to Quitner's interpretation, it is possible that Dickens' dislike of the design was wrapped up in his analysis of commercialism, industrialisation and the petit bourgeoisie, like another (although much later) critic of the design that Quitner found: a ceramic encyclopedist called Warren E Cox who briefly mentions the Willow Pattern is his 1944 Book of Pottery and Porcelain:

"...Nothing could better exemplify the utter dearth of aesthetic consciousness than the stupid copying of this design which lacks every element of true Chinese painting and any real claim to beauty whatsoever, and the maudlin stories wrought about it to please the sentimental old ladies of the late 18th century...the terrible willow pattern, sentimentally concocted from Chinese originals, was sent back to China to copy. Such is the effrontery of merchants."

Common as muck, indeed, and one of the first mass marketed products of the Industrial Revolution, whether churned out in China as export to order by foreign buyers, or made in England. But how lovely is this piece that my sister (with a good eye for antiques) found for my birthday this November. Marked Royal Doulton Burslem, England, Willow (known by the mark to be circa 1891-1902, a bit later than Dickens' visit to Staffordshire), it's a Flow Blue Willow vegetable bowl.

You can read Dickens' entire essay online (and also download other Dickens' writing, under Creative Commons License) at eBooks@Adelaide:

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Saatchi Gallery

I went to the new Saatchi Gallery in the Kings Road..a very impressive space with twelve great galleries within. Julian Schnabel was on the top floor and by the time I got to his room I'd seen over sixty works by twenty four contemporary Chinese artists. The Chinese work was good though pretty much like you'd expect from any Western artist (The Chapman Brothers and Ron Mueck spring to mind among others) – except for the jokes about Mao. But nothing really to inform my current work, and the Schnabel paintings were at least interesting in that respect...They are massive however, as one would expect from this bombastic American giant and I doubt I'll ever get to make work this big...(Apart from stations, theatres, concert halls, galleries and museums and the studio I used to have at APT, I've hardly spent any time in a room with a ceiling height above 12ft)...

All the paintings are worked over a stretched polyester print of a Chinese painting of a woman that he took from some old mirror in his collection, so they all have the same ethereal figure in the background. Polyester? Yes, polyester. It's a bit shiny...
The only image reference I can find is this auction website:

I'd recommend the Chinese show The Revolution Continues: New Art From China and a visit to this really great new venue (although there's no cafe yet and nowhere to sit, and the compulsory cloakroom is understaffed especially if it's raining). I wouldn't recommend going to the Saatchi website which is a horrible and frightful mess but there is a lot of information about the artists there ( You can also see a small selection of the work on show at this Grauniad link:
And you can read a review by Laura Cumming here:
She reckons the Schnabels are "trashy"...
And Adrian Searle doesn't like any of it, including the building...

Oh well...

I told my artist friend Deepa about the show and commented on how the Chinese artists (both young and old) seem to be living very comfortable middle class lives in Beijing. She responded with her take on the successful Indian artists living very well in Mumbai, and how Saatchi is creating the market for artists from China, India and the Middle East. Big money is changing hands and the new rich in these places are investing in art, even as we hear reports that the Western art market is in a credit crunch slump. One of the most successful Indian artists, she says, lives in Mayfair. It's a different world, she sighed.

I found a report, again in The Grauniad, that discusses the effects of this new market. Jonathan Watts meets the Chinese artists "in the grip of a goldrush":

On a final note: in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones quotes Damien Hirst from 2004:
" ... Art is about life and the art world is about money although the buyers and sellers, the movers and shakers, the money men will tell you anything to not have you realise their real motive is cash, because if you realise - that they would sell your granny to Nigerian sex slave traders for 50 pence (10 bob) and a packet of woodbines - then you're not going to believe the other shit coming out of their mouths that's trying to get you to buy the garish shit they've got hanging on the wall in their posh shops ... Most of the time they are all selling shit to fools, and it's getting worse."


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New space

So I've not written much in November so far. This is because I was moving studios, or rather, expanding my studio space, perhaps a rather insane thing to do in a recession. Here is Gypsy Dave knocking the wall through:

The hole in the wall was already there but had been boarded up. I have also had flu, and art-wise I was invited to make and submit two new pieces for POP100 ( which is nothing to do with the Willow Pattern project.

I have still not been to see Runa Islam at Tate Britain, but I'm hoping to do that trip soon, combined with a visit to the new Saatchi space in West London which is showing Julian Schnabel's new "Chinese Paintings". Schnabel, of course, is famous for his huge canvases with broken pottery attached to them from the late 70s. I didn't like them much then, but his new Chinese paintings look interesting...And the main show at the new gallery is Chinese artists.

Here's a stack of Chinese paintings of my own, waiting for me to finish them...

Ai Weiwei - The Irony at The Albion

It was the first time I'd heard of the Albion Gallery in Battersea. It's a HUGE space, housed on the ground floor of a massive development by Norman Foster.

It struck a strange chord, coming across this riverside development having read about Ai Weiwei's protests at the uprooting of Beijing's communities to build the Olympics. I wondered if he was aware of how this is going on in London all the time now - and particularly near the Olympic area. OK, it's not so much whole communities uprooted along the river here, but I bet this new development at Albion Wharf (which the building is named after) replaced something already here that was perfectly fine, thank you, before Norman Foster came along.

I noticed there were some barges moored by the riverside right opposite the gallery and I could see some people standing outside on one of them, but I couldn't see where the access to the barges was. I thought, how nice that there's still some life on the river here, next to this sterile monster. You can just see a mast to the left in this picture...

I didn't hang about long enough to find out but I did notice the Royal College of Art's Sculpture studios (unobtrusive) on the walk back to the car, and fancied there may have once been warehouses on the riverside that housed artists who probably had to bugger off when the new Albion building came along.

Deyan Sudjic writes: "Everything that makes London look like London is being destroyed" in his 2003 Guardian article "Sold down the river".

Says Sudjic: "Now developers, driven by soaring land values to extract the most out of every inch of riverside, build as close to the river as they can. Whole stretches are now lined with apartment blocks, built to take advantage of the views of the river, but the result is to offer residents spectacular views of all the other ranks of balconies on either side of them, and on the other side of the river, looking back at them. In the process the Thames has been turned into something very much like a very long thin football stadium."

How true indeed. Come to Deptford and see what a mess they are going to make of it here, those money-grabbing bastards. Anyway, so what was here at Battersea before Norman Foster? A little research turned up a not too disimilar story from the one I'd imagined...What's this from 2004? "Foster vision could sink an art gallery"...

Those barges I saw, could these be the very same? Jonathan Leake's report for The Times says: "The Couper Collection, a charity supported by the Prince of Wales and Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, says it could face the removal of its barges, containing works designed to introduce youngsters from local schools and estates to modern art...For several years, while Couper lived on his barges with his collection, the adjoining land was occupied by a steel-yard and a disused bus garage whose owners paid him little attention."

"Hutchison Whampoa, one of China’s largest multinationals, had acquired the derelict bus garage and asked the architect to replace it with a luxury riverside complex of 200 flats, suites and upmarket shops."

Couper and a neighbouring boat owner had laid claim to ancient mooring rights for his bit of the riverside with the Land Registry. So Whampoa Hutchison and Foster laid counterclaims with the Land Registry and engaged top lawyers Farrer & Co to take on the boat owners, and got the Port of London Authority which controls river moorings to revoke all ancient moorings and make Couper apply for a license.

But this from Guy Adams in The Telegraph, 2002, shows how long this saga had already been going on:

THE dispute between developers loyal to Lord Foster of Thames Bank and a Jubilee art gallery has escalated into a minor diplomatic row.

Last month, I revealed that Hutchison Whampoa, the Chinese developer which is building a Foster-designed block of flats in Battersea, had threatened to cut off the Couper Collection's water and electricity. Last week the head of the Foreign Office's China section, John Virgo, interrupted a meeting between the Couper's trustees and Edmund Ho, Hutchison Whampoa's European boss.

"Mr Virgo telephoned to say Jack Straw was concerned that the matter should be settled before the Golden Jubilee celebrations," says the gallery's chairman, Canon Ivor Smith-Cameron. "I am told that he did not want to see the dispute marring relations between Britain and China."

In 2005, The Observer reported that new residents of the Albion Riverside, including Ruby Wax no less, were complaining to Wandsworth Council about the "ugly" barges and were objecting to the Couper Collection's plans to build a disabled ramp. Alice O'Keeffe reports: "Opponents of the gallery include the art dealer Michael Hue-Williams and the former chairman of Railtrack, Sir Robert Horton."

However, this good news from Tim Walker in The Telegraph in March 2007:


Having rejoiced in the title Lord Foster of Thames Bank since he was made a peer by Tony Blair in 1999, the celebrated architect now appears to be taking a proprietorial attitude to the London waterway.

Norman Foster, who is best known for the wobbly Millennium Bridge and the "Erotic Gherkin" in the City, has submitted a dossier to his local council objecting to the presence of an art gallery housed in nine barges in front of one of his most prestigious buildings. The architect claims that the Couper Collection, a charity supported by the Prince of Wales, should be refused permission to improve disabled access because the gallery's "presence on the river is unneccessary".

His company, Foster & Partners, says the barges' presence in front of his gleaming Albion Riverside apartment block in Battersea is "unsightly" and "unacceptable". He suggests that the charity, which introduces disadvantaged local children to art, moves elsewhere. "There is no reason why the Couper Collection should qualify as a river activity," he says.

Happily, Wandsworth council's borough planner has discounted Foster's objections and recommends that the gallery is given planning permission at a meeting this week."


Here's the Couper Collection's website:

And no surprise that The Albion is the new gallery of Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art, he who objected to The Couper Collection. It is an impressive space because of its size. But Adrian Searle reviewed a show there in 2004 and said of the Foster building and the gallery within: "This is architecture as novelty prize marrow."

Oh well, here's a link to the Albion anyway since Hue-Williams' remit is to show artists "who provide a world-wide view of social and cultural issues", and he has championed the marvellous James Turrell, among other artists.

Not a very active site considering the money that must be washing about behind it... Oh, but what's this? Maybe his money is all tied up in a lawsuit against artist James Turrell whose work he has been promising to buyers and collecting payments for without Turrell's authority, ie, a proper contract...See this report from James Turrell's lawyer:

I wonder what Ai Weiwei would think of all this...perhaps he would say that it's a small matter compared to the actions of the Chinese state...

Ai Weiwei

On the eve of Barack Hussein Obama's election victory on November 4th, I went to Battersea to see the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at The Albion Gallery.

Whichever way you do it, Deptford to Battersea is not easy on a week day. I drove, it took ages, and when I looked for The Albion at its address in 'Hester Road' I found this is no longer an accessible road, but a pedestrianised walk that leads to a new Norman Foster building by the riverside. I had to park a couple of streets away.

I had come because I'd read about Ai Weiwei in both Time Out and in The Sunday Times (which a friend had given me because of the feature on Damien Hirst's wife in the mag section)...Waldemar Januszczak (formerly of The Guardian) wrote the review and you may still find it here:

Ai Weiwei, a Chinese dissident, was the original artistic consultant to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, which was designed by Herzog & de Meuron (who commissioned him, rather than the Chinese government), architects of Tate Modern and Deptford's very own Laban Centre. Despite (or in spite of) his role in the design, Ai Weiwei has continued to protest about the destruction that was being visited upon Beijing by the Olympics — the communities that were bulldozed and the 'undesirables' who were removed from the area - a familiar background story, perhaps, to any Olympic city story...

I went because I saw a picture of the work in Time Out that included blue and white porcelain. The large scale work on show at Albion featured huge structures made of ricketty scaffolds of floor-to-ceiling bamboo (similar to that which would have been used as scaffolding in the construction of the Birds Nest) arranged at tottering angles - in one room with bamboo chairs and stools added to the bamboo structure at intersections, and in another room bamboo poles are capped at either end by blue & white porcelain urns.

Ai Weiwei re-appropriates ancient cultural icons into contemporary artforms. Here's another link:

His own site strangely doesn't work very well, so to get an idea of his work it's best to do a Google Image search. He also showed in Sydney Australia earlier this year at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and there's a good piece about him on their site:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Portuguese connection

I began to make China Blues soon after a week's holiday in Portugal with my family. Just before the holiday I had got the go ahead from Deptford X that I was to be included in the festival. We stayed in self catering accommodation on the outskirts of Porto, in the grounds of a family estate. The family business was wedding banquets and the owners (who were grandparents) lived on the estate and tended the garden which was full of fruit and vegetables. On our penultimate day, they invited us to have lunch with them and the rest of the family and we had a marvellous feast followed by a tour of the banqueting rooms. It turned out, to my surprise, that our hostess, Maria, was an enthusiastic collector of Willow Pattern. She and her husband Antonio had travelled quite a lot and had been to Macao, and also to England and the Midlands potteries. The china they used for the wedding banquets wasn't Willow Pattern but featured the family crest and had been ordered from Royal Staffordshire. Maria had also been a highly regarded chef and had cooked for British royalty and the president of Brazil on state visits to Porto. Anyway, she had an enormous collection of blue and white, and most of it was Willow. It was an interesting co-incidence.

A Portuguese Connection

Cilda Meireles is a Brazilian artist showing at Tate Modern until January 11th 2009. It is a retrospective of his career and there are eight large scale installations...his work is described as "powerful and compelling", "elegant", "possessing clarity and mystery, science and poetry".

It's all that and political too. And breathtakingly beautiful.

I mention him on this blog because of one of the pieces "Through" (or "Atraves") which can be seen on this page (click on the picture to see more of the piece)...
As you walk through the installation in a maze of see-through walls made of different materials (such as plastic shower curtains, wire fencing, glass fishtanks - with see-through fish!) you step on panes of glass laid over already broken glass. You can feel the glass shattering at its weakest points under your feet, making a delicious crunching sound. It's a powerful feeling, being allowed to do this in a "don't touch" sort of place. It's especially liberating if you've just seen the Rothko treasures on the same floor (although in a completely different way he was also dealing with boundaries). The staff periodically go round with a brush and sweep up tiny shards that have fallen from visitor's shoes.

It is about being able to pass through prohibitions and barriers. Meireles says that by stepping on the glass (and breaking it) you are freeing yourself - "metaphorically breaking each piece of debris, each prohibition or obstacle"...

I was thinking about my recent rather small (and by no means comparable) attempt at an installation, China Blues. When I first began to make the piece, I was troubled by it being bound in the round shape. I had taken for granted the constructed and distorted view of the eastern hemisphere and I wanted it to bleed out. But since there were to be visitors and, especially, an Open Day with lots of children crashing around - and some people were already not seeing the piece and walking straight into it - it became apparent that I would need to mark the edges very strongly, not least because should anyone trip over it they might cut themselves quite badly. So I collected white chalk pebbles from the beach at Greenwich and laid them on the perimeter.

As that decision was in the making I was also thinking that drawing the countries in the gravel was too literal and that I should just fill in the whole circle with the pottery shards - and invite people to walk on the piece. What a fun interactive experience it would be! But then the piece was already advertised as "18th century pottery assembled in the shape of the Eastern hemisphere" and it also had to last 4 weeks for the duration of the festival...

So, the possibilities were there for a completely different piece. I thought perhaps I would remove some of the gravel land masses as the weeks wore on - symbolic of the rising seas - but which country first? And this would also mean finding more pottery to fill in the encroaching sea areas and that would be lots more work...

I also regretted that South America was absent from my "world in pieces", not that this continent was part of the history I was describing, but for the Portuguese connection - as the first Europeans to find and trade with the East. Oh well, never mind.

I also thought about having a final event in which I could invite people to come and walk on the piece, but there was another idea on the cards which was, far from destroying it, to keep it in place at Creekside Centre. Even as the piece was being made, plantlife was starting to grow through the gravel. Nick Bertrand and myself both liked the idea of seeing what else might sprout through given time...a sort of greening of the land...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Birds Eye View

The first Western balloon flight was in 1783, 25 minutes from Versailles to Paris. The first international flight was in 1785, Dover to Calais in two hours. By this time the fashion for chinoiserie was fading, and yet the Willow Pattern was born and became hugely popular. David Richard Quintner in "Willow! Solving the Mystery of our 200 Year Love Affair with the Willow Pattern" writes:

"Technically, the Willow Pattern design is formed from a series of receding horizontal planes in which, as a rule, the nearest objects to the viewer are shown the largest, and the farthest smallest. challenge European art norms..."

And no exception to ancient Chinese codes for landscape painting. Except for the birds."It is in the way the pair of birds suddenly appears as a design element that we can find the most significant clue to the psychological mind-shift that occurred in western Europe in the 18th century...

"The plate design's aerial view...offered highly charged elements which were the talk-of-the-town...Man and avian nature face to face, eye to eye...The Caughley design...might well have deliberately marked the success of manned ballooning.

"The success of ballooning gave humankind a new perspective on the world; it changed the nature of art's vision; it changed the essence of mapmaking and of concepts of waging war; it changed the way Europeans saw themselves and their symbols."

But how come the Chinese developed the aerial view, Quintner asks, and it is here he speculates on the idea of the Chinese having invented ballooning in the 14th century. After all they had already invented gunpowder in the 9th century, and rockets originated and were developed between 1150 and 1250 AD, and by 1350 multi-stage rockets were actually designed and used...

He also quotes from Chinese Art by William Willetts:

"In China (there is) the 'law of three sections'...each plane is drawn as though seen from the same angle of vision. Buildings and other objects in the middle distance and background, which should show a foreshortening proportional to their height above the horizon, are drawn as though they were at ground level. There are, in fact, three separate horizons...Separate objects are drawn as though the eye were free to vary the horizontal direction along which it looks into the depth of the picture...As a convention of primitive landscape, the bird's eye view may have been suggested by early experiments in map making."

Excerpts from Willow! by kind permission of the publishers: General Store Publishing House, Ontario, Canada. ISBN 1-896182-78-X

Balloon image: 'Utopian flying machines of the previous century', printed in Paris c.1890-1900. More images:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Deptford Willow Pattern

Here I have all the elements except the three people crossing the bridge. Plus a couple of things that don't exist yet (but are being built, credit crunch or not).

Actually I have two bridges (the Ha'Penny Hatch footbridge and the DLR) across the creek instead of just one (when there are in reality also two road bridges). The Mandarin's house is a jumble of new and old buildings; the newer ones are gated communities. The island is the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. The two skyscraper images are taken from the developer's hoardings at "Creekside Village" and "Greenwich Reach", their height determined by the cranes currently in place. Yes, they really will be that tall. The building on the left has an exaggerated perspective because it will have a triangular base, but this is how the developer wants it to be seen...terrorising the locals. This same developer has had his architects draw up plans for the whole of the area, featuring endless repetitions of this building all the way down my road. Dubai on my doorstep. Naturally, the birds are vultures.

I am still working on this collage...In his book Willow! David Richard Quintner suggests the Willow image, based as it is on elements of Chinese design, takes one vital aspect from the Chinese, that of non-Western perspective. It is an aerial view. Quintner speculates that the Chinese invented the hot-air balloon well before the French (a hot-air balloon featured strongly in the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony this year, without comment from the BBC team covering the event)...either way, ballooning was the technological advance of its day when the Willow Pattern was introduced...

Creek Willow

This is a willow growing in Deptford Creek. Now all I need is a bridge, a river, an island, a fenced-in property, two birds...

Deptford X has finished

Great to have been involved in this secret backwater of a festival, which finished last Sunday. Didn't get to see everything as I had to sit with my piece, but I managed to get pix of the following (sorry, they're not particularly Willow Pattern related and nor are they very good pix!):

Deepa Chudasama's BINDI DRAWING on the arches at Ha'Penny Hatch (she worked on two arches but I only have a pic of one arch)..."examining the historical tradition of mark-making on surroundings and bodies"...

Katie Gilman's 10,597..."the distance in miles between Deptford and Tasmania - the birthplace of the artist and final destination of convict boats that sailed from Deptford in the early to mid 19th century...drawing on the history of rope making..."

Fran Cottell's GOLDEN BALLS, which were dotted around Deptford in all sorts of unexpected places...referencing architectural domes...(turns out I wasn't the only one manically spray painting balls this September)...


Also, there was Leila Galloway's HOLD, Patrick Semple's MEMORIAL TO THE UNKNOWN SHOPPER, and a show by Patrick, Bea Denton & Paul Marks in Paul's new space ARCH, a great film by Anita McKeown ( and some guerilla art from Rachel Hale. Rachel was not included in the programme, but her POLITE SIGNS raised a chuckle from everyone who came across them...

Also, I really enjoyed Ben Cummins' PAVEMENT SONNETS, DEPTFORD SCARS, an audio-walk around Deptford which narrates the history of the area. He missed out on talking about the art one might see on the way, but nevermind. Presumably it is still available for download at the Deptford X website.

Lastly, on the third Sunday of the festival, Creekside Centre ran a Walk Up The Creek, late in the afternoon, and Helen Barff came to take pictures of her boat and say a few words about her piece. Here we are setting off down to the creek.

If you fancy a walk up a creek, go to their website and check for dates and times.


Picture courtesy:,_Cochin_synagogue.jpg

18th Century hand painted porcelain tiles from Canton, on the floor of the Jewish synagogue in Cochin, Kerala.

These are referred to in Salman Rushdie's 'The Moor's Last Sigh'...

"Scene after blue scene passed before her eyes. There were tumultuous marketplaces and crenellated fortress-palaces and fields under cultivation and thieves in jail, there were high, toothy mountains and great fish in the sea. Pleasure gardens were laid out in blue, and blue-bloody battles were grimly fought; blue horsemen pranced beneath lamplit windows and blue-masked ladies swooned in arbours..."

An essay by Timothy Weiss "At the End of East/West: Myth in Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh" examines the novelist's 'cultural hybridity' and explores ideas about narrative and myth-making.
"The vignette of the Cantonese tiles is one among numerous tales in miniature that illustrate the creative, mythmaking process of the novel as a whole. 'In the end, stories are what's left of us, we are no more than the few tales that persist,' muses the dying Moor..."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Belitung Wreck

On From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 this morning, Simon Worrall reported on a marine archeaological discovery in the Indian Ocean that perhaps dates from 826AD...

"Among the most sensational artefacts found in the wreck are three dishes decorated with cobalt from Iran which represent the oldest blue and white ware ever found, setting back by several hundred years the invention of what would become known all over the world simply as "china.""

Read the rest of the report "The treasure trove making waves" at:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Smashing Glass

The Greeks aren't the only ones smashing things. In the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, the penultimate part is the Sheva Brachos, or seven blessings. After the blessings, the couple share (for the second time) in drinking a cup of wine, and the groom breaks a glass with his right foot by stamping on it. This custom apparently dates back to Talmudic times and is intended to symbolise the Temple in Jerusalem being destroyed. A utensil is broken to show identification with the sorrow of Jewish exile – a breaking of hearts. Everyone then shouts Mazaltov! and the band starts playing and all begin dancing.

A modern interpretation is that this is the last time the groom gets to put his foot down...or that it is a warning to the couple that life together won't always be as happy as that day...or that human relationships are fragile.

Or it means breaking ties to the past...or refers to a broken world...

Modern ceremonies might have the couple breaking the glass together and sometimes a Rabbi might say "May your marriage last as long as it takes to put the glass back together", which is of course forever since the glass cannot be repaired. Although it could be reblown, rather like reincarnation in another life...

A symbol of plenty – the shards represent the children from the union...

Perhaps it's the bride's hymen about to be broken...(or is that the veil?)

There is also the custom of breaking the plate - at the beginning of the wedding the mothers of the bride and groom get together and smash a very large plate. The pieces of the plate are given to the bride-to-be. If the plate is decorated with words from the Torah and she gets a piece with a whole word on it, she feels very lucky. Left over pieces might be made into a mosaic...

Blimey, wedding customs are pretty weird stuff, and there are so many similarities across religions...veils, canopies, silver spoons...breaking a cake over the bride's head...even though customs may be old and inherited, they are also borrowed, added to and tampered with...worth a project in itself.

Smashing Plates

So anyway I found that article I was looking for:

"In its earliest form, plate smashing may be a survival of the ancient custom of ritually "killing" the ceramic vessels used for feasts commemorating the dead. The voluntary breaking of plates, which is a type of controlled loss, may also have helped participants in dealing with the deaths of their loved ones, a loss which they could not control.

"Similar offerings may also have been presented at other times to include the dead in festival proceedings, with the result that this custom for the dead began to be tied in with all kinds of celebrations...

"Breaking plates can also be a symbol of anger, a classic part of domestic disturbances. Since plate breaking often occurs at happy occasions, it may have begun as a way of fooling malicious spirits into thinking that the event is a violent one instead of a celebration.

"Worldwide, noise is believed to drive away evil, and the sound of the plates smashing against the stone or marble floors of Greek houses would be loud enough to scare off almost anything.

"There is a phrase used by children about sidewalk cracks - "Step on a crack or you'll break the Devil's dishes". In early Crete, ritual offerings and vessels were thrown into cracks and fissures located near peak sanctuaries. These "cracks" would certainly have had "dishes" in them, and later followers of Christianity may have demonized the old practice.

"Since the children's chant is actually a caution to avoid stepping on cracks, it may refer back to ancient associations with these "dishes". So breaking plates during a performance may be a way of protecting the dancers and musicians by destroying supposedly evil influences present in the poor plates...

"...Usually, breaking plates in praise of a musician or dancer is considered a part of "kefi" - the irrepressible expression of emotion and joy.

"A plate might also be broken when two lovers parted, so that they would be able to recognize each other by matching the two halves even if many years passed before they met again. Small split versions of the mysterious Phaistos disk are used by modern Greek jewellers this way, with one half kept and worn by each of the couple.

"Breaking plates is also an act which implies abundance - "We have so many plates we can break them!" - similar to lighting a fire with a piece of paper money."

Etc etc. (by a travel writer called deTraci Regula at

Breaking China

I wanted to say something about broken china and was looking for an article I read some time ago online about smashing plates, and googled "Broken China". Apparently there is a 1996 solo album of the same name by Pink Floyd's Richard Wright that documents his wife's battle with depression...Hmm...

But the search also led to Runa Islam, Dhaka-born film-maker and current Turner Prize nominee. One of her films shows a woman slowly knocking china off some plinths...The link came via an American blogposter who introduced the link as "for more 'women-and-broken-china' art, visit...". Seems we have a genre of our own, and I can't wait to see her film.

I also found a blog by a guy who seems to be of religious persuasion (he quotes the Bible a lot) but he said something interesting...I quote (and remove religious references)...

"What is shattered china worth on the open market? I looked it up on ebay and there was nothing for sale. Nobody wants to buy shattered china..."

Wrong, Josh, it's called Pique Assiette - broken china for mosaics - and there's plenty of it about and plenty of hobbyists making mosaics out of it. But generally I agree that it has no value for most people, and is generally thrown away rather than mended. He continues:

"I found a broken china vase that came with free shipping. As of this writing, nobody bid on it at all. I am afraid that imperfect china is not worth much these days. Not even a dollar...

"Over 30 years ago, The Friend published a story by Iris Syndergaard about the early Mormon pioneer women who gave up their china dishes and porcelain to help make the stucco for the Kirtland temple. The broken china was needed for holding the plaster together. The poor saints had no wealth, yet they gave it. They took their china and shattered it, made it worthless, and gave it away. When the construction was completed, the temple shimmered whenever the sun rose or set on the edifice."

He then quotes:"God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength." ["Broken Things," an excerpt from Vance Havner, The Still Water]"

I also found another blog (can't find the link now) where a woman writes that her grandmother used to say that a broken heart is like broken china. You can mend both, but you'll still see the cracks.

Here is a blurred picture of my China Blues piece. The sun is shining brightly and by screwing up one's eyes, it's possible to imagine sitting on some decking on the Med gazing out at a shimmering sea...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kate Murdoch's 10x10

To mark the tenth anniversary of Deptford X Kate Murdoch has created an installation at Framework Studios of 100 treasured objects, inviting for one day only - today, the 10th of the 10th - people to take an object and replace it with one of their own.

I took from her installation a tiny Willow Pattern tureen and replaced it with a 500g box of 'Temple of Heaven' Shanghai Gunpowder Chinese Green Tea. As I posed for her husband who was documenting the event I accidentally dropped the object's little lid which smashed on the floor. Everyone thought I'd done it on purpose - like I'm the queen of broken china - but I was very annoyed with myself.

Kate began the bartering or swapping process at 10am this morning and by 8pm more than 50 objects have been swapped. Some swaps are on objects that have already been swapped. She's stopping at 10pm. It's such a fun project it would have been great if it'd gone on all weekend.

Sex Toys?

I had originally fancied the pottery that washed up at Deptford was the result of the East India Company repairing its ships here. Porcelain was carried in the holds, serving as ballast, with the more precious and perishable tea on top, and so might be found littering the shore...but then I found blue and white further upstream, and also it wasn't porcelain, perhaps bone china, but mostly delftware or earthenware. The Museum of London then told me it was because everyone used to discard their rubbish in the river.

I later discovered this was the case up until the mid 19th century when the process of waste regulation began. The Public Health Act of 1875 charged local authorities with the duty to arrange the removal and disposal of waste. By the end of the 19th century household waste was collected daily in moveable ash bins, and was sorted by hand (usually by women or girls) into salvageable materials.

A large proportion of waste was recycled, but breeze (fine ash) and hard core (rough stuff) from incinerated material was used in building materials. The broken pottery I found in Kent was brought down with ash by Thames barges to the brick works, where bricks used to build the prospering cities and factories were handmade up until the early 20th century.

Martin from The Herb Garden came by at Creekside Centre and, seeing a rather weird shaped bit of pot in the mosaic, told me that porcelain sex toys used to be imported from China and the ships' cargo was often confiscated by customs and thrown in the river. That was why there was so much pottery washed up, he said.

Then I got an email from Cheryl who lives opposite the centre: "Thanks for your email about your show. Janet mentioned the willow patterned ballast dumping near here. Also that a marble dildo was jettisoned? I am doing my 3rd year dissertation on vibrators. Yes. Any material at all would be gratefully received."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

China Blues

Deptford X 2008 : Temporary Projects
26 September – 19 October 2008

Saturday & Sunday 1-5pm
Creekside Centre
14 Creekside SE8 4SQ

Shards of 18th and 19th century blue and white ceramic, found on the beach at Deptford, Greenwich, the South Bank and Kent, are assembled in the shape of the Eastern hemisphere 0n a 10ft circle of gravel already onsite. This ‘world in pieces’ attempts to recall the historical roots of blue and white earthenware, the passion for all things oriental, and the trade in tea and porcelain that led to England becoming the stronghold of one of the first mass-marketed products of the Industrial Revolution — blue and white transfer printed pottery. Manufactured in its millions, it was intrinsically interwoven with the growth and popularity of tea — a once sacred Chinese beverage reduced to a mere commodity in a traumatic encounter between East and West.

With thanks to Nick Bertrand and Kate Coss and all at Creekside Centre for their support, Paul Prestidge (Creekside EducationTrust) for the secret location of the Kent beach, Kate Sutton at The Museum of London, Christine Stewart and Maria Clemen who helped with beachcombing, and Shaun Barnett, Bill & Gus Clift for donating their own collections.

Patna Black

Deptford X : Temporary Projects
26 September – 19 October 2008

Saturday & Sunday 1-5pm
Creekside Centre
14 Creekside SE8 4SQ

Tea, porcelain, opium, silver and consumerism...

Or in this case, a silver car-paint-sprayed shopping trolley rescued from the Creek, car-paint-sprayed plastic footballs from Terry’s, Gunpowder loose tea from Housewives’ Cash n’ Carry, plus surprisingly pricey microwaveable Willow Pattern plates and the last 5 metres of silver coin dress edging from Peter & Joan’s.

A partly buried upturned shopping trolley disgorges its cargo like a shipwreck. The East India Company, who repaired its ships at Deptford, had free rein to use military force to establish monopolies in the trading of tea, silk and porcelain, wielding more power than any other commercial organisation in history. The Company's strategy for trade in China involved smuggling opium to pay for tea, a policy of state sanctioned drug running that created millions of Chinese addicts.

Broken China

Deptford X : DNA GROUP SHOW : The Value of Nothing
26 September – 19 October 2008
Saturday & Sunday 12-6pm
Framework Studios
5-9 Creekside SE8 4SA

Painting inspired by the Willow Pattern design
(61cmx61cm, tea, transfer, acrylic and oil on canvas)

Tea Drawings

Work in progress
(26cmx22cm, tea leaves on canvas)

Willow Pattern Story Retold

This project began two years ago with an exploration of the Willow Pattern Story. My mother used to tell my sister and me the story she learned (she knows not where) that goes with the plate. She had a set that was bought by my father in the late fifties.

My interest was sparked when I began beachcombing on Deptford foreshore, where I kept finding shards of blue and white ceramic that were mostly Willow Pattern.

I discovered there were many versions of the story - as many as there are versions of the plate. I also discovered the story was invented to sell the design, and that the plate did not illustrate an already existing legend.

This led to research into when and where the design was first conceived, and also I found myself looking into the culture surrounding breaking plates, and correspondingly, the breaking up or cutting up of words and narrative.